Two decades of skepticism in Hungary: A personal view
January 22, 2015
Although having held 20 annual conventions in a row could be considered a major success for any organization or group, the number of events in and of itself should not be something to take credit for, one might say. On that note, let me share a few thoughts on how we Hungarians are doing nowadays with our skeptical movement and what I see our greatest challenges to be.
2014 - A year of skeptics’ conventions
For a country as small as ours we have quite a few events annually, the year 2014 having been especially busy with three major conventions in three different cities. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? But does all this necessarily mean we’re on the right track towards success?
National Conference of Skeptics for the 20th time
Just as every fall since 1995, Székesfehérvár, a small city within less than an hour drive from Budapest, saw a small but devoted group of Hungarian skeptics in the middle of November, this time gathering in a small lecture room at the University of Óbuda.
The series of these events had been the mother of all skeptic actions in Hungary, one that I even consider my intellectual cradle, as I’ve been attending these since the second occasion in 1996, when I was a high school student, a kid really. When I joined the 'movement', it was not even called that. What it actually was, is a halo around a carefully selected community of a few members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Természet Világa (World of Nature), a science-themed monthly periodical. After professor of anatomy János Szentágothai and physicist Gyula Bencze had made contact with James Randi back in 1991, a line of events led to the rise of Tényeket Tisztelők Társasága (Society of the Respecters of Facts, also called 'Hungarian Skeptics'), a league of esteemed scientists and science educators. Despite its reputation, though, the organization itself has never been officially founded. And to be honest, not much had happened either, other than a few scholars making statements among themselves, despising pseudoscience.
This was soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain that led to political changes in countries within the Eastern-European block, including Hungary, of course. The mindset of the era still had its roots in a highly authoritarian system, in which scientists (and science for that matter) happened to enjoy great appreciation, and New Age madness was only on the verge of leaking in from the west. So tackling the problem of pseudoscience and anti-intellectualism with a select few scientists seemed a pretty obvious choice.
Randi later made a visit to Budapest and established a Skeptic Award for a student essay competition run by Természet Világa. So, his name is connected to our beginnings as well as others’ around the world, apparently. And for a while, this award brought hope that a step might be made forward towards the public, by recruiting young individuals at an early age. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be the case, mainly due to the lack of resources on Természet Világa’s part to organize winners. However, I am grateful for the opportunity this award gave me, personally to join the movement.
When in 1995, a small town community centre in Székesfehérvár took on the task of putting together a conference for Hungarian skeptics to exchange ideas and experiences, and provide attendees with the means to take part in the fight, it looked like something was in the making. Every year, there were great talks covering all kinds of nonsense that circulated in our society at large. But as these events went on (and they still do, as I mentioned above), a lot of us soon realized this was not enough. Pseudoscientific claims and quackery were proliferating, so getting together once a year and whining over the idiotism that was taking over the world was not enough effort (then, let alone today). Although outreach was provided in the form of a few articles in Természet Világa (along with Randi’s prize), which was great, that was about it in terms of our social penetration. The organizers and the magazine did their share, but there was need for a real movement. More of a grassroots approach.
All that led to a bunch of us founding the Hungarian Skeptic Society in December 2006 (yes, we waited too long). Two people from the former ‘league of skeptics’, Gábor Hraskó, a young biologist turned IT specialist (now chair of both our organization and ECSO) and István Vágó, probably the most appreciated person on TV at the time, decided it was time to make one step forward. They teamed up with the Hungarian Freethinkers and a few individuals, including myself, all so delighted to join them. We pushed the idea of wider outreach, more open approach to activism and promoting skepticism even among those scientifically illiterate, or despite being well informed, holding no scientific degrees and careers. Moreover, we’ve been aiming at making people think for themselves instead of respecting authority and accepting claims without questioning. The efforts made towards that goal included organizing open events, TV and radio appearances, publishing articles in newspapers and journals, writing a blog, organizing our own conference - things well known these days to all of us within the international community of skeptics.
However, this was not the direction particularly welcome among the 'founding fathers' of Hungarian skepticism. By some, this approach was considered a threat to the cause as they thought letting in people without a scientific background would lead to lots of misinformation crawling in. Although the two approaches - the academic mindset, looking down from the ivory tower of science and the grassroots activism - were so different, we didn’t have much to collide over, as Tényeket Tisztelők Társasága, due primarily to an aging community, slowly became completely inactive anyway, while the Hungarian Skeptic Society was gaining ground and managed to bring along even younger, more inexperienced skeptics (but we still need to work a lot more on that, I’m afraid).
The annual conferences originating from 1995 lived on, if slightly diminishing by the year… more on that later.
Skeptics Conference in Budapest
In 2004 at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics a new kind of convention started its history, organized by a few university teachers and employees. It was and has been ever since a continuous attempt to address university students and bring the idea of critical thinking closer to them, focusing mainly on physics related topics.
Talks from both the 'old one' in Székesfehérvár and the 'new one' in Budapest are available online (though hidden in a website, mixed up with lots of other content) and they’re always broadcast live from the event. So these could be used as incredibly valuable materials for skeptics around the country.
Even though there is some overlap and our members always try to take part in some way or another in both conferences, neither of these conventions can be considered officially to be the work of the Hungarian Skeptic Society.
Skeptics Conference in Szeged
This September, however, we launched our very first own Skeptics Conference in Szeged, a major Hungarian city with a high rated university. We prepared a huge line-up of talks and the result was quite good. There were a number of new faces in the audience, most of them local students, teachers, and supporters. The 250-seat lecture room was filled up to about 1/3, but seeing so many unfamiliar people was a delight. And it was also broadcast online by Galileo Webcast (just as the others before). The topics covered included homeopathy, GMOs, the anti-vaccination movement, principles of critical thinking, pseudoscientific claims in history and linguistics, as well as chemophobia, through talks given by fantastic speakers, mostly from the University of Szeged. Among them, there is one particular person to mention, prof. Zsolt Boldogkői, a molecular biologist who - although, frequently criticized for being authoritarian and slightly arrogant in his rhetoric - has become a media phenomenon in the last year or so with his - sometimes overly polarized - views on pseudoscientific claims in the field of medicine.
We intend to turn this event into an annual convention in the future that travels through the country stepping on every year to the next city. We'll see how that goes.
Back to 'The Big One'…
In contrast to that one in Szeged, we saw almost no new faces at the 20th annual conference (the 'old one') in Székesfehérvár. I've been wondering about that ever since. I mentioned above, how much influence those conferences had had on me. This is why, no matter how heartwarming it was to see practically the same set of people, all so familiar from the last two decades, it was equally disappointing to see how much it has shrunk to a minor gathering, remembered and visited by only about a 30 to 50 strong audience annually, all that without the potential to reach a significant number of new people.
Even though the afternoon session offered a variety of topics in the light of skepticism (e.g. placebo studies, the misleading doctrines regarding linguistic relations, and the history of UFO sightings), the morning session was pretty much about looking back on the last two decades. The unfortunate death of one of the greatest Hungarian science educators and writers, only a few days prior to the convention, lead to him being remembered in great detail. And rightly so. Aurél Ponori-Thewrewk, whose work within the Hungarian Astronomical Society and his books on the astronomical background of the greatest literary works of all times, makes him worth every moment of kind commemorations, not to mention remembering the wonderful personality he possessed. And he would never miss a single occasion to meet with fellow skeptics since 1995. This was the first time…
Then, after about 20 minutes spent with watching photos, overlooking the last 20 years, the program finally moved to a panel discussion at the end of the morning session titled: "What have we achieved in this almost 20 years of representing science, skepticism and critical thinking?”
Well, a nice conversation as it was, it didn't really step outside the realms of an afternoon tea party. Professor Mihály Beck, who had his 85th birthday the very day of the convention, and whose two books on the matter of science vs pseudoscience are brilliant pieces of work, was so nice to see in such a good shape. But something was missing…
People participating in the discussion were those I've truly admired for both their scientific achievements and for what I've learned from them since a much younger age. Iván Almár from SETI and professors Mihály Beck and Gyula Bencze, sitting around the table, had undoubtedly been the ones founding the movement (with equally highly esteemed, late professors János Szentágothai and György Ádám), but with all due respect to their previous works, one has to admit their contributions to the cause of skepticism have largely declined in the last 10 years, mainly due to their age (although, Iván Almár, 82, is amazingly active to this day at the Hungarian Astronautical Society and I admire him for both that and being the nicest person).
Given all this, I found it somewhat strange that the Hungarian Skeptic Society, the only officially existing body of the kind in the country did not even get an invitation to delegate someone to the panel. Here’s this organization with 8 years of history, around a 100 members, recurring media and other public appearances (including a monthly radio show and a podcast channel), a great number of hosted events, monthly talks year after year, attending Sziget Festival 3 times and hosting 14th European Skeptics Congress, along with thousands of online followers, and its president being the chairman of European Council of Skeptical Organizations, and yet we did not get a seat around the table, where the last two decades of Hungarian skepticism was discussed. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not envy. But one has to be fair. The panel was nice, though quite nostalgic in nature and all about anecdotes and jokes about the stupidity we face on an everyday basis. As if the last decade had never happened. And they didn't really talk about the needs, anyway. Instead, it was all about telling what the problems are. One thing they mentioned in terms of necessary actions was how much education could do for skepticism.
So when the Q&A session kicked in, I couldn’t help making a long and elaborate comment, telling them it was the other way round: skeptics should be helping out the educational system, as what’s to be tackled is the lack of critical thinking skills. I mentioned our activities, with special regard to our most recent action of joining the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project with a handful of Hungarian Wikipedia editors. The latter seemed to generate quite some attention and a few nice private conversations afterwards. By the way, I tried my best to prepare for the conference by having sorted out the Hungarian articles of Tényeket Tisztelők Társasága aka “Hungarian Skeptics” and the Hungarian Skeptic Society before the event.
When I was talking about the power of Wikipedia worldwide and the necessity to act on improving the quality of all the content, bringing up the example of James Heilman and his group working on the Ebola virus page, panellist Károly Härtlein (well known science educator in physics, presenter of a
popular show called Brutal Physics and chief organizer of Skeptics Conference in Budapest) reflected with some kind
of lingering authoritarianism that still puzzles me when I see it within the skeptical community. He kept emphasizing the need for academic titles in order
to gain respect and he appeared reluctant to accept that editing Wikipedia articles and finding the right sources to back them up does not necessarily
require a PhD-level prior in-depth knowledge of a certain field, once critical approach and a skeptical eye are in place, with all the information
available both on-line and off-line. Also, I tried to argue that educating people towards skepticism is not necessarily dependent on academic achievements
(though, I admit those can help in certain cases), but skeptical, critical thinking skills, teaching abilities and opportunities to speak. But we couldn’t
debate it any further as time was already up. And I was probably not important enough for him to talk to me during the lunch break.
So, my overall impression of this was that there was some kind of denial in the air and I felt like some kind of rebel for being an activist instead of a scientist. Hard not to mention, though, that unfortunately, this 'national' event has become so peripheral in recent years, if it hadn’t been for me (the guy who was partly 'brought up' by the organizers and has always been trying to re-join the threads), there would have been no one representing the one and only officially existing Hungarian skeptical organization at the longest running annual conference of skeptics in the country. For some years, I had had the chance to be part of the organizing committee, too, but the last time I had anything to do with it, other than being a participant, was in 2012. And the above-mentioned differences were quite obvious even back then, so I ended up giving up on trying to make a change against the organizer’s will. You really can’t do that.
I do hope this conference will rise up again to its former glory, when it was considered to be THE ONE, which gave so much to people across the country. So much history there, yet so many missed opportunities. Or at least that’s my opinion.
But the skeptical movement lives on. We are doing our best to tackle the flood of nonsense re-generating by the second. And that requires a lot more than getting together and making sad faces. We’ll keep on doing what we have so far. We have to grow; we have to be able to offer these events as the oases in the desert of madness for like-minded, skeptical people, the critical thinkers, who need others to join them in their fights. We need to find those people out there, bring them in and have them join our efforts. We need to build networks.
So I might have sounded too critical towards the National Conference of Skeptics, but I do see its place. Not only in our history, but also in our future. It all depends on the organizers now. There are lots of other events and projects, so everyone can find something with special interest to them. Something to which they can contribute. What we have to do is seek opportunities to work together for the benefit of our country, Europe and the world. There’s so much to do and we have so limited resources. We are to live our own personal lives, make progress, make ends meet (neither is easy in Hungary these days, you might have heard), while we’re trying to save our society from shifting too far towards madness (that you must have heard about).
We, just as others out there, are fighting against those who are making a living out of woo and nonsense (not only politicians), while doing all this in our free time, paying with our time, energy and all too often with our credit cards to do so. The question of what means to use to make progress has been discussed over and over again on hundreds of forums, so I’m not going to get into that. Especially because I agree with those who say we need to fight on all fronts possible, where everyone finds their place of action that fits them best. Not everyone thinks so. Never mind, step on. We’ll keep doing it.
(I hereby would like to thank Miss Judit Balogh for her suggestions and help in proofreading the text.)